In modern times, the much argued Black Legend, which still casts a shadow on the reputation of Spain and Spanish culture, does not seem to have much affected the general image of Portugal. The smaller Iberian state, nonetheless, shared with Spain an institution which was a major component of the Black Legend—namely, the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
There are apologists, in Spain and elsewhere, who maintain that, within the context of the times, the Inquisition was a legitimate weapon in the struggle to achieve religious and national unity. Modern scholars, priding themselves on their objectivity, also often tend to minimize the Inquisition’s sinister aspects, on the grounds that heresy hunting and witch crazes in northern Europe took more lives in less time, and that the particular disesteem felt toward the Holy Office in some measure reflected a variety of Protestant bigotry.
António José Saraiva, one of contemporary Portugal’s most eminent literary and cultural historians, approaches this emotionally charged topic from a different angle. His research on the Inquisition, as it operated in Portugal, makes a plausible case for the sometime popular view that the Holy Office was an unmitigated atrocity. It should be emphasized that, despite a polemic edge and a place on the Portuguese best-seller list, the work in question is an important addition to the scholarly literature. The author’s conjectures and assertions are reasonable interpretations of the source documents which he cites.
Saraiva properly points out that the term New Christian should not be taken as synonymous with Jew or crypto-Jew. It is his belief that the genuinely Jewish population quickly declined in Portugal during the sixteenth century due to the seizure in 1496 of the Jewish children under fourteen, the continual flight of Jews and New Christians from Portugal, and widespread intermarriage between New and Old Christian families. The establishment of the Inquisition, as he sees it, manufactured Jews out of a social category which had come to be labeled New Christian. Saraiva believes that Jewish historians, such as I. S. Révah and the late Cecil Roth, as well as less sympathetic Iberian scholars, such as Julio Caro Baroja and J. Lucio d’Azevedo, all err in evaluating Marranoism by taking the claims of the Inquisition at face value.
He believes that the Inquisitorial trials were not fair and objective, even by the standards of the day—the accused were not granted the rights customary in contemporary civil cases. The Tribunal of the Holy Office, which lived on the confiscated property of its victims, had an obvious vested interest in exaggerating the survival of Judaism; and its Kafkaesque procedures were such as to lead automatically to the conviction of innocents. To understand this, Saraiva argues, it is necessary to go beyond the confessions and testimony at the Inquisitorial trials, and examine the regulations by which they were governed. He submits a convincing case for this, based on a critical analysis of the Regimento do Santo Ofício da Inquisição dos Reinos de Portugal, published in Lisbon, for a restricted audience, in 1640.
Some of the issues raised by Saraiva may not be new, but the cogency of his analysis requires that they be reconsidered in the light of further research. The records of the Inquisition—a veritable ocean of ink—survive in Portugal’s national archives, the Torre do Tombo. They are a challenge to historical scholarship, and a neglected storehouse of information pertinent to all the social studies.
This is a book which should be widely read by historians, social scientists and thoughtful people. It deserves to be translated.